Sign treaties, or ‘shut ’er down’

Finally, somebody in the B.C. treaty negotiation system has come out and said it. Ottawa needs to get serious.

B.C. Treaty Commission federal representative Jerry Lampert and chief commissioner Sophie Pierre say Ottawa's approach to treaties has to change.

VICTORIA – Finally, somebody in the B.C. treaty negotiation system has come out and said it.

Releasing the B.C. Treaty Commission’s 19th annual report last week, Chief Commissioner Sophie Pierre announced she has asked for a one-year extension to her term, to see the organization through its second decade. And if things don’t change, particularly in Ottawa, then “shut ’er down.”

The commission is the independent “keeper of the process,” and the chief commissioner is appointed by agreement between the federal and provincial governments and B.C.’s First Nations Summit. Its job is to facilitate talks and dole out funds to aboriginal groups researching and negotiating treaties. As of this year, they have disbursed $500 million, $400 million of it loans that must be repaid out of treaty settlements.

“We are 19 years into the process, and we have, just on the First Nations side, a half a billion dollar investment, and when are we going to start seeing a return on that investment?” Pierre asked.

It’s safe to assume that there has been at least that much spent by the federal and provincial governments as well. And after a burst of progress with the Tsawwassen and Maa-Nulth treaties, and a controversial deal with the Yale First Nation in the Fraser Canyon, costly inaction resumed.

Sliammon First Nation negotiators finalized a treaty in 2009. Off it went to Ottawa, where it has languished ever since, waiting for a set of initials that would allow a ratification vote by about 1,000 Sliammon people near Powell River. At stake is a settlement in which B.C. contributes 8,300 hectares of Crown land and Ottawa provides $37 million to compensate for a century of trespass and resource extraction from Sliammon territory.

(You can object to all this and try to live in the past, as B.C. Conservative leader John Cummins does, but we now have stacks of high court decisions that make aboriginal title real and inescapable, if not well defined.)

Other commissioners agreed with Pierre about Ottawa’s role, including the federal appointee, Jerry Lampert.

“The Canadian system is such that they are constantly going back to Ottawa for mandates for their individual negotiators,” Lampert said. “This is bureaucratic, and it plays against the idea that we’re in a real negotiation.”

With a majority government in Ottawa, and B.C. MP John Duncan as federal aboriginal affairs minister, there is hope of movement. And there is action on another front.

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq was in B.C. last week to sign an agreement to hand over authority and funding for on-reserve health programs to a new aboriginal authority that will work with the provincial health system directly to administer reserve health programs. This will end a parallel health system run by Ottawa on reserves.

A similar agreement was signed in 2006 for aboriginal schooling. Alas, five years later, there is still wrangling between the First Nations Education Steering Committee and Ottawa over funding. But I’m told there is progress there, with resolution possible by the end of this year.

Sto:lo Tribal Chief Doug Kelly, chair of the First Nations Health Council, says its financing terms are clear, and dealing Ottawa out of health care delivery will improve outcomes.

B.C. Health Minister Mike de Jong and Aboriginal Relations Minister Mary Polak agree that these broader self-government transfers for health and education, along with forest and mining deals, will bring treaties closer.

Pierre’s blunt warning must have been heard in Ottawa. It appears the Sliammon treaty has been located and will receive federal blessing this week.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com

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